Former Police Chief Louis Kealoha, who is under federal investigation for public corruption, has spent months fighting with the Honolulu Police Commission to get taxpayers to pay his legal bills in a related lawsuit.
But on Wednesday, the main event was Kealoha’s increasingly rancorous effort to have Police Commissioner Loretta Sheehan removed from the case.
The former chief says he doesn’t want Sheehan, a former federal prosecutor who now works in private practice, taking part in that discussion because he believes she’s biased.
Sheehan released a letter at the Wednesday meeting written by Kealoha’s attorney, Kevin Sumida, accusing her of approaching her commission duties with a “jaundiced eye” and “poisoning the public well.”
Sheehan also released her rebuttal, which came in the form of a neatly-bound binder containing dozens of exhibits to defend herself from Kealoha’s accusations, explaining that she was doing so in the interest of “transparency and public accountability.”
Sheehan’s colleagues didn’t say much about those filings during the meeting, but they agreed to send the matter to the Honolulu Ethics Commission for an opinion on whether she should be disqualified from the case.
Honolulu Police Commission Chairman Max Sword demurred when asked about the back-and-forth, saying only that Sheehan had every right to defend herself. He also didn’t want to comment on the commission’s crumbling relationship with Kealoha.
“It’s passed,” Sword said. “He’s no longer part of us anymore.”
And Sheehan was the only commissioner to vote against a lucrative severance package for Kealoha — one that included a $250,000 cash payment — after he was named as the target of a U.S. Justice Department corruption probe. He resigned in January.
That investigation stemmed from allegations that he and his wife, Katherine, a city prosecutor, had framed her uncle for stealing their mailbox to gain the upper hand in a fight over money.
Several other officers have been implicated in the wrongdoing, and one former cop has already pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy.
On Wednesday, Sheehan described Kealoha’s request for her to recuse herself from the discussions about his legal fees as “baseless.”
“His theory is that I’ve already made up my mind about whether the city and county should pay for his attorney or not,” Sheehan said. “I have no opinion about Chief Kealoha. I found his allegations to be disturbing and disappointing. But I’m not surprised.”
The scope of the legal wrangling is impressive. Both Sumida and Sheehan submitted hundreds of pages to the Honolulu Ethics Commission to consider.
Sumida outlined his client’s reasons for wanting Sheehan removed from the legal counsel decision in a May 30 letter that included dozens of exhibits, almost all of them news articles from local media outlets, including Civil Beat.
Sheehan provided her own response, which was equally voluminous. She even provided bound copies of her rebuttal — with lettered tabs for each of the 31 exhibits — to the commission and members of the press.
“Kealoha relies upon a bold mischaracterization of the record as well as shameful innuendo devoid of any credible basis whatsoever.” — Loretta Sheehan
The gist of Sumida’s argument is that Sheehan has targeted his client ever since she was named by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell as an appointee to the police commission.
“That Commissioner Sheehan has an agenda is clear,” Sumida wrote. “But what is most disturbing is that she has been willing to disregard the law, State ethical constraints, and possibly even attorney disciplinary rules, to accomplish her objectives.”
Sheehan, on the other hand, says Sumida is stretching the truth and obfuscating reality.
“In arguing that my actions as a Commissioner constitute evidence that I had an ‘agenda,’ former Chief Kealoha relies upon a bold mischaracterization of the record as well as shameful innuendo devoid of any credible basis whatsoever,” Sheehan wrote.
“I had no ‘agenda’ other than to fulfill the obligation I had agreed — under oath — to perform.”
Sumida went after Sheehan for her actions during a Sept. 7 police commission meeting in which she grilled Kealoha about the ongoing DOJ corruption investigation and several other cases of officer misconduct. Those cases have resulted in millions of dollars in legal settlements paid for by the city.
At the time, Kealoha and his department were under a growing cloud of suspicion stemming from allegations that he and his wife, Katherine, a city prosecutor, framed a family member for the theft of their mailbox to settle a personal score over money.
Sheehan specifically asked the chief if he had received a “target letter” from the DOJ, something that would have indicated he was suspected of criminal wrongdoing.
In a May 30 letter to the commission, Sumida described Sheehan’s questions as an “ambush” of HPD and his client.
Sumida argued Sheehan improperly obtained information about the target letters either from Michael Wheat, the federal prosecutor spearheading the DOJ investigation, or Sheehan’s colleague, Thomas Otake, a fellow attorney at Davis Levin Livingston who had represented one of the officers caught up in the corruption probe.
But Hawaii News Now had already reported that target letters were being sent to officers who were suspects in the investigation.
Indeed, Sheehan said she was merely relying on news reports and her 14 years of experience as a federal prosecutor when forming her questions for Kealoha.
That Kealoha, through Sumida, would attack Otake, she said, “crosses a line that puts not only his credibility at issue but contravenes the professional obligations of candor.”
“This is an outrageous accusation of unethical conduct for which no basis whatsoever exists,” Sheehan added. “Mr. Sumida should be ashamed of himself for stooping so low.”
Sumida focused a lot of attention on whether Sheehan violated officers’ privacy rights when discussing their misconduct during open police commission meetings.
Among the officers she specifically cited by name were Bobby Harrison, Dan Kwon and Keoki Duarte. She wanted to know how Kealoha handled their cases.
Harrison was sued after he arrested a lesbian couple that was kissing in a grocery story, which resulted in an $80,000 legal settlement. Kwon had admitted to using racial slurs against a fellow Mexican-American officer in a discrimination lawsuit that ultimately ended in a $4.7 million legal settlement.
Sumida also criticized Sheehan for publicly releasing a letter she wrote that outlined the reasons she believed Kealoha should be removed as police chief.
In that letter, she wanted Kealoha to answer questions about why he recommended HPD Major Ryan Borges, an officer with a history of domestic violence, to assistant chief.
“That she was willing to so cavalierly trample on the rights of good police officers in order to achieve her ends is not only sufficient evidence of her bias, it is sufficient evidence of her unfitness to responsibly carry out her duties as a Police Commissioner,” Sumida wrote.
Sheehan approached her commission duties with a “jaundiced eye.” — Kevin Sumida
But Sheehan said it’s her duty as a police commissioner to ask the chief tough questions, especially when there have been so many high profile cases of officer misconduct at HPD, some of which has resulted in millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded legal settlements.
Sheehan added that the fact that Kealoha’s attacks on her integrity, through Sumida, was an affront to the democratic process.
“The public deserves transparency, and has a right to be informed of matters involving their public institutions,” Sheehan said. “Accordingly, questions raised on behalf of the public, even if directed at those who hold vast power are neither unethical or unfair; they are the cornerstones of public accountability.
“Former Chief Kealoha’s desperate tactic impugns the integrity of the Police Commission as a whole and must be unequivocally rejected.”
Read Sumida and Sheehan’s arguments here: